My Indian Grandmother convinced me to download an app that just sold for $19 Billion

posted by on 2014.02.20, under Entrepreneurship

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I wake up every morning around 4am, if only for a few minutes, because of this app I recently downloaded. I live in Kentucky and keep odd hours compared to most, but the app is no alarm clock, it is a messaging service that is called WhatsApp and the reason it goes off at 4am is because my family in India begin group messaging each other around that time. The timing isn’t ideal, but I haven’t turned off the notifications because

1) I am lazy (I think I am still using the original OS for my iPhone 4)

2) I miss my family.

My experience with understanding advancements in phone technologies have usually revolved around the ease and affordability of keeping in touch with these relatives. As a kid I remember we had to call an operator to connect us, and once connected we would speak really fast to each other and pass the phone to the next. Sometimes my relatives would have to walk down to a phone booth with a sign saying “STD” which I never really understood. We eventually moved over to calling cards, then to calling card services that didn’t even require a card. As a teenager we started experimenting with internet phone services, which which sometimes worked, but usually took more time than it seemed to be worthwhile. Of course, there was AIM, which I pleaded my cousins to join when I visiting them, but it never really took off. They created yahoo messenger and hotmail accounts for me, which I rarely logged on to use. Skype was exciting, but again, the connection was spotty. Last Thanksgiving things seemed to really improve, allowing for  a 3 continent simultaneous musical jam session over skype and facetime using several ipads.

And then my Grandmother, who lives in a small village in Goa, India, demanded over the phone that I download this app that she just got for her new smartphone. I obeyed, and entered a world of unlimited communication at no expense. This world was available to us before, but had never been made to be so simple and so instant. My father, who has refused to adopt a cell phone was the only person left out of the conversation, but he would join in at times through my mothers phone and crack jokes and keep up with our banter. It may have been the only time he’s truly desired to have his own cell phone, but he is yet to cave in.

When I heard that this app sold for $19 Billion last night, I thought my VC friend who posted the news was making a joke. And then my laugh turned into panic. I’ve been paranoid about overvaluations of startups since I left California 3 years ago. This is perhaps the biggest case of it, and as an aspiring educator of entrepreneurship, I am frightened.

WhatsApp was a great service that leveraged mobile data plans and wifi services to make international communications feel like they are free. They boast 50 billion texts per day sent over the app, 450 million active users (with fastest user acquisition in history), only 32 engineers supporting 14 million of us users each, and zero dollars spent on marketing. The service is free of advertising, and costs $1/year after a free year of service. The valuation of $19B is similar to how a drug would be priced in M&A transaction. The article states:

“Only 35 U.S.-based publicly traded companies have a price-sales ratio of 19 or higher, according to data compiled by Bloomberg based on analysts’ estimates for three years from now. All are in the biotechnology or pharmaceutical industry, including companies such as Puma Biotechnology Inc., which has an experimental breast-cancer treatment, the data show.”

When people didn’t understand why Snapchat turned down the $3B offer from Facebook, I quietly gave a sigh of relief, realizing that the relief was very temporary. It’s not that I don’t like seeing entrepreneurs getting rich. I am just having a tough time understanding the prices. And while the strategic motivation for Facebook to seek to acquire these startup apps that have quickly grown a younger, international user base, I just don’t believe that they can invent business models to bring a return to these investments to bring value to their shareholders in the long run. I hope I am wrong.

WhatsApp has written a new narrative of the overnight success appeal of entrepreneurship. No one is talking about how this technology piggybacks on many other companies that have invested many more dollars on infrastructure that allows the technology to work. Surely the expense of sending 50 billion daily text messages will find its way back to the customer one way or the other, whether through slower internet speeds or higher priced data plans. Wasn’t it less than a month ago that people were up in arms about net neutrality?

That aside, the part I dread about this story is the attention entrepreneurs and investors are going to give to trying to get in on the next WhatsApp deal, or play in the game of Zuck-opoly  There are far too many real problems in the world that need the attention and ingenuity of our society. These problems (renewable energy, poverty alleviation, water, health etc) can still make entrepreneurs very rich, but I worry they will be harder to see when those with the deep pockets who missed out on this deal use lenses of hindsight for evaluating future  opportunities.

I am thankful to the founders of WhatsApp for their stories – one being the immigrant story of wanting to avoid  government monitoring of communications while staying in touch with family in Russia and the Ukrain, and other other being a story about a his mentor, an entrepreneur snubbed by Silicon Valley who got the last laugh. It will be a great movie. They put me in better contact with family, and that is a tough luxury to value. But it is a luxury, and one that is probably not going to remain free for much longer. A handful of people made a fortune on this deal, and I just hope they use some of those profits to invest in innovation that will bring long-term, sustainable value to this world.

But I will be texting a link to this article to my grandmother via WhatsApp, and sharing the link over Facebook. So, I guess I am as bad as the next.





The New York Times hired a badass

posted by on 2010.10.01, under Academia, Entrepreneurship, India, Shameless Plug, Travel

It took an evening in Louisville, Kentucky to realize this.  After 8 hours of studying theory, statistics, and banging my head against a library wall, I threw on my finest sports coat and ventured out for my first night on the town in downtown Louisville.

This weekend is Idea Festival.  It has been one of the best surprises this town has afforded me in my first two months here.  I was looking forward to the event after the kickoff event – Thrivals 3.0 – featuring Jackie Robinson’s son (David), Janelle Monae and her “motown meets silicon valley” label Wondaland Arts Society, Howard Bloom, who spoke passionately about public relations work with Prince and Michael Jackson and several other inspirational speakers who were handpicked by U of L’s Professor Nat Irvin.

I entered the theater with very little background information of the speaker who was scheduled to talk today.  I saw something about “Gandhi” on the flyer, and made an assumption that it was an Indian, perhaps someone talking about philosophy or yoga, or something I was half interested in.  Within 5 minutes I lost any buyers remorse for purchasing tickets for this event, and realized I was meant to be in this very room, in Louisville, Kentucky, at this exact moment.

Anand Girid­haradas was able to articulate everything I experienced in my short tenure in Hyderabad, while enlightening hundreds of us on insightful observations he had made as a journalist in Mumbai (Bombay) India over 6 years.  He spoke with charisma, poise, and conviction, and intentionally paused, keeping listeners in check with the realization that we might never get this education ever again in our midwestern/southern lives, before revealing a new idea that kept us asking for more.  None of his propositions were left undefended, but there was very little that was academic about his tone.

He clearly ordered his thoughts into a presentation that alluded to things his audience could understand.   It felt like I was learning with him – which is a quality I have attributed to some of my best professors and mentors.

I understand that up until this point, I haven’t said anything about his  actual message.  I am not sure how well I can share the perspective he donated to us tonight, but I will try to summarize what stood out to me.  I urge the reader to purchase this man’s book, that will be coming out in 2011.  He too has experienced the frustration of not being really an American or an Indian.  Referencing a comment made by someone in the audience tonight, Indian’s don’t know whether to charge us 100 rupees for entrance (US prices) or 50 rupees (indian price) so they charge 75.  Before I get to his presentation, I need to preface it with a list of the similarities between us, which is absurd.

1.  We were born in Cleveland, Ohio to parents who grew up in Bombay, India and visited India every 2 years as children.

2. We attended college in Michigan.

3. Shortly after college we worked in India.

4. We are both the son of a professor

5. This year, we both started Ph.D programs.

Anand described his fears of the future in America, while optimistically proposing what we should do to avoid them.  Giving examples of TATA cars that cost under $2000, he suggested we stop limiting innovation to luxury items like ipads and smartphones.  He gave a staggering statistic about how there are more people in the world with access to mobile phones (mostly “dumb phones”) than toilets. (6 billion)  Manufacturing jobs should be focused to serve the markets that demand products based on need instead of desire.   Instead of redesigning existing products by stripping away features to lower costs, we should start from scratch, building a lower cost and useful product designed specifically for the market it is intended for.  Not everyone in the US owns an iPhone.  Damnit.

The US has always exported culture to the developing world, but Anand argues that the world no longer sees our way of life as an end-goal, but simply as a “means to an end.”  Just like our movies, basketball shoes, and Yankees hats are knocked off, so is the culture, and Americans do not see a dime in return.

The brilliance of this speaker is exposed as he concludes his talk.  By this time, I have gotten over the fact that he might be a better dresser than me, and has found a more distinguished hairstyle.  I start thanking my stars that the New York Times selected him to share these pearls of wisdom with a much larger audience than the Hyderabadass could ever hope to talk to.  He talks about community, about culture, and changes in geography that is impacting them.  He proposes that our generation is becoming more and more ‘placeless’ transplanting to new places for work and losing identities.  We have less in common with each other because technology gives more options.  Tivo restricts watercooler conversation because we no longer watch the same tv shows on the same nights.  For the first time in the history of the world more people live in urban cities than rural communities.  We are desperately longing for communities, which is why our search tools focus on this (Yelp)  but we’ve lost a connection from this old way of life, and it will be difficult to recover.

It was a great speech, and I was overall impressed that this went down in Louisville.  The timing was perfect, with the controversial premier of NBC’s Outsourced, which was discussed briefly, but also a subject of Anand’s latest piece in the times.  A badass, indeed.

Four Wheel Fly

posted by on 2010.09.07, under Entrepreneurship, News, Technology

Next year you might have a chance to buy the first commercial flying car.  Developed by MIT grads, the Transition by Terrafugia is planning on launching a vehicle that can fit in your garage, is street legal, yet can fold out wings in 30 seconds and take off for flight for up to 500 miles.  Take-off and landings must take place at airports, and pilots must have 20 hours flying experience from earning a Sports Pilot license.  2 people can ride in one, and they boast that their is storage room ideal for golf clubs.  It runs on premium unleaded fuel, and will likely start at around $200k.

There are several other projects designed to help us become more like the Jetsons.  Will police to monitor this new form of traffic, and if so where do you go if they pull you over?  What will insurance premiums be?  Will Nascar evolve? Will there be smog tests? How much more will mechanics charge? Will the big auto companies get into this? So many questions, So many questions…

Healthcare Bill? Nope, just a post about the EyeWriter

posted by on 2010.03.22, under Entrepreneurship, News, Technology

FutureEverything awarded the 2010 prize to the EyeWriter

“The EyeWriter is a pair of low-cost eye-tracking glasses that allow artists and graffiti writers with paralysis to draw using only their eyes. Inspired by Tony Quan, a graffiti writer, social activist and publisher who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (AML) in 2003, The EyeWriter is the result of a collaboration with five other artists and a production company. It is an ongoing project to empower people suffering from degenerative neuromuscular diseases with creative technologies.”

This is one of the coolest inventions I have seen all year, and I can’t wait till we can get one for my uncle.  Check out the video below to see how it works, and watch the artist project graffiti art in real-time onto LA buildings from his bed.

The Eyewriter from Evan Roth on Vimeo.

More pictures

Oh, and I guess there is some news about Healthcare today….I’ll let you check your facebook feeds for that though, I openly admit that I can offer no intelligent commentary on the matter.


Social Entrepreneurship + Guiness World Record

posted by on 2010.02.10, under Academia, Entrepreneurship, Shameless Plug

 In my last semester in the LMU MBA program, I was invited to be in an unique entrepreneurship class taught by the founder of Kinko’s, (Paul Orfalea) that is a mixture of MBA students and undergrads (including ridiculously smart freshman) – all committed to becoming entrepreneurs.

3 of the undergrads in the class are stirring up some buzz for a class project in another class, where they had to create a marketable product from an ordinary object (brown paper bag)  What they’ve done is brilliant, combining social entrepreneurship, creativity, and an unusual guiness world record challenge.  Basically, they are asking people to cut a brown paper bag into a paper doll (using a template from the website) that they can decorate, and mail it in with a dollar (or more) so that 20,000 paper dolls can be held together by a group of students in France.  The dolls and the money will all be donated to Haiti for an orphanage.

“Donors are asked to create a paper doll, and then mail it along with a donation of $1 or more to the Lighthouse Charitable Foundation: 311 N. Robertson Blvd., Suite 151, Beverly Hills, CA 90211.”

Check out more info here –

The Sex Appeal of Innovation

posted by on 2010.01.26, under Entrepreneurship, Humor, News

A study of our European ancestors may propose that ancient cave women couldn’t resist the sex appeal of the innovators of their time.

Looking at genetic patterns in Europeans, scientists see evidence that women from hunter/gatherer societies left their men and started procreating with the innovative farmers of their day.  Although it may be difficult to envision farmers as “innovators” amid our current society cluttered with self proclaimed social media guru’s, scientists who have technology to clone you, and engineers who can design gadgets that either can make our lives easier or miserable, ancient farmers spread a disruptive technology that changed the way people lived.  They also probably really pissed off the hunters and gathers, who’s genes faded throughout the centuries following the loss of their lady friends.

Who are the “farmers” and “hunters and gatherer’s” of today’s society?

Sugar Mama

posted by on 2010.01.21, under Entrepreneurship, Humor, News

Times are certainly changing. Recent reports by the Pew Research Center indicate that more women are becoming sugar mama’s in our society. In the 60’s it was normal for a woman to be fired once they got married. In 2007, it was reported that 22% of women in the US made more money than their husbands. When looking at education of married couples, 53% of the couple had the same level of education, In 28% of the couples, the wives had higher education compared with 19% of the couples with men having more education.


Food for thought – via a truck

posted by on 2009.11.24, under Entrepreneurship

The social media guru, Mike Prasad behind Kogi BBQ spoke at my campus, and it was a fascinating perspective on how a start-up in a new industry can leverage the power of this communications channel to grow a business, and defend itself from large competitors.

The companies founders had noble intentions – to bring the street food culture from Korea to the streets of Los Angeles.  Once has resulted has been a revolution in the restaurant business, with 30 similar trucks, including a “masala dosa” truck in Santa Monica among other cuisines.  By using social media to have conversations that couldn’t take place in any other medium, the businesses can evaluate demand around the crowded city of LA to determine where to send their trucks.  People wait in line for hours for the food, musicians have been known to debut their new songs at the truck locations, and it has turned into a fusion of food and LA culture, while giving people access to a new cuisine of food at a very low price point.  As a driver in this city, I love the idea, considering I avoid driving places at any cost, and having a delivery truck possibly come to my neighborhood from collective demand, it is just a win-win overall. 

In his presentation he mentioned fighting Baja fresh via blogs, tweets, and eventually proper journalism once thousands of people were tweeting about how Baja ripped off Kogi BBQ.  I haven’t been too fond of twitter historically, but his presentation definitely shed some new light on the site.  The strategic steps taken to protect a company that couldn’t afford lawyers to defend them from an unethical attack from a corporate machine was the highlight of morning.

Also – I am now following Kogi, so that I can catch their truck for lunch, because the food is indeed delicious.


Entrepreneurship in Academia

posted by on 2009.11.17, under Academia, Entrepreneurship, Other, Shameless Plug

Some of the best classes I have taken in business school have been entrepreneurship classes – Dr. Grossman’s Technology Commercialization, Managing New and Growing Businesses that teach comprehensive approaches to both written and “living cases.” (living cases involve working directly with a CEO or leaders with notable organizations) Next semester I will be taking a class with the CEO and Founder for Kinkos, Paul Orfalea The course is open to a select number of students by invite only, and will be my first MBA class that is not taught by a prof with a Ph.D.  Other classes I plan on taking are Social Entrepreneurship and Entrepreneurial Finance.

I believe that there is a cycle to entrepreneurship, and the ideal cycle in my situation seems to suggest two stages take place in Academia.   The first stage is my current graduate education.  The second is a possible future in teaching and higher educational research  .   Pre-MBA, I believed there should be a experiential stage between these two, so that the second stage serves value to others, at least in Entrepreneurship.  However lately I have found myself challenging this belief, and considering an immediate transition into Academia as a professional, and pursuing a Ph.D.  Of course, a Ph.D is not needed to educate others, (Orfalea is an example of this) however it seems very few other approaches gain the credibility needed to be successful (outside of the irregular $200 million sale of a company).  

The transition from industry to a classroom had a learning curve, and I can only assume that if I delay higher educational pursuits, I will face more of these.  However, I am still weighing the pros and cons of such a decision, more importantly trying to understand the value of entrepreneurial studies in an academic environment to society, and most importantly, whether my skills and passions align with it.

Affiliation with a research-intensive university for 4 years also provides a wealth of resources to explore ideas, and possibly even pursue entrepreneurial ventures within the confines of the curriculum.  Dr. Kiesner from LMU is considered a pioneer in building Entrepreneurship into Business School curriculum, and is known for unorthodox methods.  Further, at the Social Innovation Fast Pitch event at USC, 2 of 6 judges were professors, who have been and continue to be very involved in industry.  Microfinance as we love it today was developed by a professor (Muhammad Yunus), who won the Nobel Peace Prize.  His career is full of entrepreneurial ventures on the side, and is certainly something to be admired.  In his case, however, the majority of his contribution to the industry came after becoming a professor.  

These type of role models have caused me to ponder how long I should wait before becoming an educator.  On one hand, I might lose the entrepreneurial spirit after 4 years of intense study, and several more of research and teaching to secure tenure and never carry out any of my ideas.  On the other hand, the educational experience may be enlightening and an engine of newer, more innovative ideas that can be executed through different channels (educational grants, community involvement, published properties, or ideally for me – film).  Somewhere in the middle is the concern if I will be qualified to be an educator at such a level.  Certainly I am not right now, but I have to imagine that I need to plan ahead somewhat so that I am ready when the time comes – a Ph.D program takes 4 years.  

Perhaps the key element to all of this is timing.  Business ventures can be a careful formula of a brilliant idea and exceptional management yet still result in failure,  Every successful entrepreneur I have spoken with or studied credits timing – which involves a stroke of luck among other things.  Perhaps a person’s decision to become a successful educator in entrepreneurship depends on how they time such a venture in the larger schedule of their life experiences.  As inspirational as it is learning from a professor full amazing experiences , it is arguably more discouraging taking a  class with a professor full of experience but with exhausted insights and a jaded attitude.  Sometimes these professors can have the appeal of a former hometown hero quarterback that never moved on past highschool.   

I suspect that if timing is the critical factor for success, then it will be extremely important to surround myself with the right people and environment to be able to hear the calling and respond accordingly.  Possibly I am hearing it now, and I just need to think through some of the beliefs I have established – It may be unnecessary for me to be a successful entrepreneur to be a successful entrepreneurial academic, Maybe I need to ask the following questions –  Will I have time to both explore my ambitions and teach about the journey? Will higher educational studies be the only way for my mind to generate such ideas? Will higher educational studies prevent me from being able to execute any idea at all?  

When asked in 2003 about how he felt about a lawsuit and having ties cut with Clayton Dubilier (Kinkos buyout firm), Paul Orfalea responded – 

“It’s been agony, and I won’t miss the business or Clayton, Dubilier,” says Orfalea, who now devotes his time to building day care centers and teaching a course at the University of California, Santa Barbara, his alma mater. “I’m building day care centers. I like teaching school. I have a life. I’ve got better things to do.” 

There are other quotes that describe his pride in building the company from UCSB’s campus in an office so small “ the copy machine had to be lugged out onto the sidewalk” to nearly 1800 stores, that sold for billions to FedEx.  I am extremely excited for the class on several levels, as a student, entrepreneur, and aspiring educator.  



posted by on 2009.11.04, under Entrepreneurship, Shameless Plug

This company is awesome!  They took a terrible system of import/export of international art, and opened up the marketplace to give local artisans control over their business, and the result has been a successful online business that brings thousands of remarkable products from around the world to consumers.  Based out of LA, their mission reads:

“We want to give artists and artisans around the world a global platform to express their true artistic talents and to spur their creativity. And, we want to provide you with access to unique, hard-to-find items at great values that only the Internet infrastructure can allow……NOVICA. The World is Your Market.”
Check out their website, certainly a great spot for holiday shopping.